On the eve of a lockout focused largely on the economics of the league, MLB’s owners spent money at record levels in the month of November.
Unlike the opening of NBA free agency, which typically begins with a frenzy of Woj bombs announcing deals for star players within minutes, the MLB offseason has tended to progress slowly. Since 2011, roughly 15% of all offseason spending by teams has been dished out in the month of November, when players first hit the market.
This year, however, players signed contracts worth a total of $2.16 billion in November, exceeding the previous high of $577 million in 2012 by a factor of nearly four, according to Spotrac.
It wasn’t just the usual suspects (e.g., Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers) digging into their pocketbooks. The Texas Rangers shelled out half a billion dollars for two free agents: Corey Seager and Marcus Semien. The Seattle Mariners, who ranked 25th in payroll last year, gave Robbie Ray $115 million for five years. The Tampa Bay Rays even dropped $182 million, good for the largest financial commitment in franchise history, on 20-year-old Wander Franco, who has played 70 games in the majors.
Notably, the month’s 11 largest free agent contracts, worth a combined $1.29 billion, have been paid out by teams that missed last year’s playoffs.
The spending spree has a number of potential motivations related to the current climate. A work stoppage freezes all offseason activities, including contract negotiations and signings. Meanwhile, a congressional bill that could raise taxes on those whose modified taxable income exceeds $10 million is looming, potentially incentivizing a player to sign now.
At the same time, the owners had plenty of reasons to lock in players now. For one, it is beneficial for a team to have more certainty about the composition of its roster in case an agreement to end the lockout is reached with little turnaround time before the start of next season.
Owners will also be able to use the events of the past month as ammunition in upcoming negotiations. The MLB Players Association has argued for years that bottom-end teams are not encouraged to spend money and have no disincentives for losing. The owners will point to the Franco signing and other deals from typically low-payroll franchises to show that those teams are trying to win.
The sum of $1.67 billion in free agency deals and $489 million in contract extensions during November 2021 alone exceeds the average total offseason spending between 2011 and 2020, and is about 80% of the way towards surpassing the recent high of $2.65 billion in 2016. Given the number of big-name free agents still unsigned, including Clayton Kershaw, Carlos Correa and Trevor Story, it is likely that this will end up being the most expensive offseason ever for MLB franchises.
For now, though, it looks like the December 2021 spending will be $0.